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    Description

    Robert Henri (American, 1865-1929)
    Sarah Burke, 1926
    Oil on canvas
    24 x 20 inches (61.0 x 50.8 cm)
    Signed lower left: Robert Henri

    PROVENANCE:
    Far Gallery, New York, 1963;
    Josephine Forrestal, New York, acquired from the above;
    By descent to the present owner.

    Robert Henri's masterful Sarah Burke is a love letter to Ireland, his cherished home away from America and the inspiration for a vast and vital body of work from 1913 until the end of his life. His attraction to Ireland began growing in the early 1900s in New York. As the leader of the progressive Ashcan School, Henri, together with fellow artists John Sloan, George Bellows, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn, sought out Irish immigrant subjects for their urban realist paintings and illustrations. In 1908, Henri, who had distant Irish roots himself, married Marjorie Organ, a newspaper cartoonist and native Irishwoman, and they talked often of an eventual visit to the "homeland." The following year, the Irish artist and writer John Butler Yeats befriended Henri and introduced him to Irish-American literati--the patron John Quinn and the journalists Charles FitzGerald and Frederick James Gregg--who discussed politics and culture at "Yeats' court" behind a local restaurant. Yet perhaps the greatest impetus for Henri to visit Ireland was the international 1913 Armory Show, whose elevation of abstract over representational art ousted Henri as the longtime head of the New York vanguard. Eager for a fresh change of scenery and a refuge from art politics, Henri and Marjorie set sail for Ireland in the summer of 1913.

    It was during this first trip to Ireland that Henri discovered his ideal subject matter and work environment, ultimately making his Irish portraits "the most popular and identifiable of his oeuvre." (V. Leeds, From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri and Ireland, Charlotte, 2011, p. 49) From Cork, the Henris headed north, exploring town after town until they came upon Achill Island on the western coast. Here, they found what they were seeking in the remote fishing village of Dooagh: a picturesque, traditional community of "little white cottages" unspoiled by modernity (Ibid., p. 54); authentic, colorful, and charming townsfolk willing to sit for portraits; and a stunning natural backdrop of heather-dotted mountains and virgin beaches. The couple rented a house outside of town, Corrymore, whose light-filled studio and views of the Cliffs of Minaun and Clare Island, stirred Henri to produce over 140 paintings in a short three-month period.

    While Henri painted both landscapes and portraits of the village elders upon his arrival, it was the children of Dooagh who fed his soul and became his staple subject. Art historian Valerie Leeds describes their modeling process:

    "The young models came to Corrymore in the afternoon by prior appointment. . . . Those old enough attended the Dooagh School, but would miss school to pose. . . . The children were fed lunch by Mary O'Donnell, the housekeeper, and would pose from one to three; the Henris would then have lunch, and the model would pose again until about 5:30. Marjorie generally arranged the sitters and their clothing-caps, capes, shawls, scarves, shirt openings, and the positioning of the figure-with an eye for the underlying geometric structure of the composition. The children were paid half a crown for each modeling session, an amount considered a man's good daily wage at that time, and they were often also given a small token gift or bag of candy. . . . Marjorie oversaw the music playing on the Victrola that entertained the models during sittings. . . . The children were 'wild over it' . . . . Henri found that the Victrola was vital in keeping the sitters engaged while he painted them." (Ibid., 62-3)

    Henri wrote about these sessions: "I am not interested in making copies of pretty children. What I am after is the freshness and wonder of their spirit." (Ibid., 76) In an effort to capture the child's authenticity, he insisted that his models wear their everyday clothing, not their Sunday best as they often desired. Because the Achill Islanders' work clothing was handwoven and colored with vibrant natural dyes, Henri was readily able to indulge his interest in color as a "formal element and expressive means." (Ibid., p. 67) Marjorie recounted, "[there were] millions of all kinds of children in the most primitive dress-and the effects are stunning. . . . all the material for their cloths-such purples and reds-wonderful." (Ibid)

    Financial troubles and the start of WW I kept the Henris from returning to Ireland for ten years, but after inheriting his mother's sizable estate in 1923, Henri and Marjorie purchased Corrymore on Achill Island, making it their permanent summer home until his death in 1929. These Irish "vacations" were enormously fruitful for Henri, resulting in scores of portraits each season, and allowing him to synthesize many of the realist principles he had formulated as an instructor at the Art Students League. Indeed, his portraits of young sitters like Sarah Burke, Michael Mac, Skipper Mick, Mary Ann Cafferty, and Mary O'Malley exemplify his teachings, published collectively in 1923 as The Art Spirit: "work with great speed" (p. 23); "the brushstroke [should be] visible on the canvas [with] a size . . . [and] its own texture" (p. 67); "color is a means of expression" (p. 155); "there is a super color which envelops all the colors . . . and is most important" (p. 5); the effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the oppositions of cool colors with warm colors" (p. 54); "the simpler a background is the more mastery there must be in it" (p. 39); "the background has as much to do with the likeness as anything else [and] should be evoked by the figure" (p. 250); "good composition is like a suspension bridge, each line adds strength and takes none away" (p. 265). And perhaps most relevant to his Dooagh portraits, "If you paint children you must have no patronizing attitude toward them. Whoever approaches a child without humility, without wonderment and without infinite respect, misses in his judgment of what is before him, and loses an opportunity for a marvelous response. Children are greater than the grown man" (p. 234). (R. Henri, The Art Spirit, Philadelphia, 1923)

    Henri's captivating portrait of Sarah Burke depicts the daughter of the butcher from the fishing village on Ireland's Achill Island that Henri frequented. He painted the portrait in 1926 at his home on the island, Corrymore, and slightly retouched the canvas the following year. The work was acquired by a New York collector in the 1960s, and has remained in the family ever since.

    We wish to thank Dr. Valerie Ann Leeds for her gracious assistance in cataloguing this painting.


    More information about Robert Henri, also known as Henri, Robert, Cozad, Robert Henry, .



    Condition Report*: A condition report from Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc., is available upon request.
    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Some condition issues may not be noted in the condition report but are apparent in the provided photos which are considered part of the condition report. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. Heritage does not guarantee the condition of frames and shall not be liable for any damage/scratches to frames, glass/acrylic coverings, original boxes, display accessories, or art that has slipped in frames. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

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